In Helen DeWitt’s peerless novel The Last Samurai, single mother Sibylla reckons that her son needs a father figure. The boy’s actual father wouldn’t do, and neither would pretty much any other dude in the vicinity; none of them really operated on the same level as Ludo and his mother. But what most fleshy role models around them lacked Sibylla found in Akira Kurosawa’s titular Seven Samurai, which she would have her son Ludo watch almost every day. Perhaps she went a little nuclear on what a father figure should bring to bear, but she was lucid in her desires for the film to convey through thousands of viewings.
Over the course of this novel, DeWitt compassionately explores the limitations of genius and the elegance of language while deconstructing familial and parental relationships down to a broth. I’m often thinking about this book, but the thought I most often return to is the idea of these seven father figures, a distinctly twentieth-century idea of the child reared by a village, and my own experience with ad hoc father figures, which mostly involved too-late attempts to get into sports.
When he suggested we attend a baseball game, I wasn’t shy in my disinterest. We lost touch immediately after that.
Sports are fine. Capitalism ruins sports like it ruins everything, and the ubiquity of the sports-industrial complex leaves a planet of fans caked in competitive ruination. It’s turned politics and governance into two teams forever at odds, led mostly by men taught that victory at any cost is the purpose of their work. But deep into a match, soused on the spirit of the game, occasionally brings out the light of a good-natured contest of will, reserve and wits. I have to admit I’ve seen this spirit in my girlfriend’s eyes while she bellows as the Bruins cut back and forth; I’ve felt its glimmer while following the US Women’s National team take the world cup with charm, hard-wrought skill, and especially their use of inspirational invective for the oligarchs bleeding the world, and by extension sports, bone dry.
When my mom signed me up for soccer in early high school behind my back, I cursed and wailed in possibly my last unrestrained hormonal meltdown. Ultimately it was rewarding, probably because we topped out with two ties and a playoff disqualification in the name of good vibes, but it failed to instill a true lifelong love of the game. Similarly, my mom arranged for an adult mentor, a big brother/temp-father-figure-type situation with a local journalist who was very nice and keyed in on my interest in writing. I think we got along but ultimately it was too late for me, I was settling into my social bubbles and couldn’t really be bothered with much else. When he suggested we attend a baseball game, I wasn’t shy in my disinterest. We lost touch immediately after that.
Many of the other teams take this shit ludicrously seriously, slumming it with the no-strikes scrubs for piecemeal validation I guess, but they can’t tramp our spirits.
Fast forward twenty years, and I’m on my fifth or sixth year of fumbling around on my office’s low-stakes, Kentucky Fried softball team, the Catfish. We’re a bunch of dinged-up publishing-adjacent nerds scrambling around the field like we didn’t touch a mitt or a ball for our first couple decades, which is likely the case for most of us. We play mostly as an excuse to decamp at the Muddy for pizza and beer at the end, with an annual game against our heated cross-town rivals, a team usually stocked with former all-stars and lifelong students of the diamond. I didn’t know what “RBI” stood for until last year, and am still not really certain. We almost always lose, but we leave our hearts and sweat out on the grass.
I get it now, at least, a little bit more. Many of the other teams take this shit ludicrously seriously, slumming it with the no-strikes scrubs for piecemeal validation I guess, but they can’t tramp our spirits. Even if our gloves are slipperier than most, our swings crossing over a wider spectrum of certainty, and none of us are willing to risk a fracture for speed. I wish this joy in participation is what I could have felt back then. Each of my father figures tried to convey the idea in their own ways and I suppose it clicked by degree; bless them for lessons sunk in years later.
Levi Rubeck is a critic and poet currently living in the Boston area. More shenanigans can be found at levirubeck.com.